T.S. Spivet (Kyle Catlett) is as young and prodigious as the title of the film would have you expect, when he is named as the recipient of an award at the Smithsonian Institute, T.S. leaves his family behind in rural Montana, and journeys cross country to accept his award.
It has been several years since Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s last movie Mic Macs, and he returns to directing with a film as warm and as whimsical as we have come to expect from the director. Casting Kyle Catlett in the lead role seems to have been a coup for Jeunet, as Catlett is as prodigious as his character, being fluent in English, Russian and Mandarin Chinese. The trouble is that while Catlett is warm and makes the character his own, the film relies on voiceover by the young actor and, at at times, he is difficult to understand.
The supporting cast is made up of Helena Bonham Carter who, ironically considering the tone of the film, takes a step away from her more whimsy fuelled roles of late as T.S.’s mother Dr Clair, Niamh Wilson as Gracie, and Callum Keith Rennie is T.S.’s father. The supporting cast are not really given a huge amount to do, but they add to the world of the film and give T.S. something to run away from, and back towards.
The film is based on a novel by Reif Larson; written for the screen by Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Guillaume Laurant. Laurant and Jeunet’s screenplay plays up the whimsy of the story, but is rather jumbled at times, leaving the audience wondering why T.S. is so removed from his family, and which demons he is trying to fight by running away. The random encounters that young T.S. has on the road are rather lovely, but the film suffers from being a confused and jumbly sum of its parts, with lashings and lashings of dreamy whimsy, which begins to grate after a while.
As director, Jeunet coaxes some lovely moments from the cast, but choosing Catlett to do the voice over of the film, and making the story more about moments than a cohesive tale means that the film becomes a victim of its own whimsy. That said, Thomas Hardmeier’s cinematography is beautiful, making a train journey across the US as magical and wonderful as we could hope for.
The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet is, essentially, a film about a young boy trying to reconcile his place in his family, and come to terms with a tragedy that he blames himself for. This is not always obvious, however, and while the film looks good, Kyle Catlett’s voiceover is often unintelligible so emotion is often lost and the film is left to drown in its own whimsical ideals.